Yesterday was a bird-intensive experience. I’d signed up to a one-day course at Oxford University called ‘Birds of a feather’, presenting some of the latest science on bird evolution. However, I started the day about five miles west, at Farmoor Reservoir, as a rare grebe had dropped in for the week.
The day conference, which took place at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, focussed on two main areas of research: first, the spectacular yield of bird fossils from China; second, the dramatic improvement in understanding of the DNA of birds and other groups of animals.
What makes the Chinese fossils, from Jehol, so important is the exquisite preservation of soft tissue as well as the harder, bony skeleton. This means that the development of feathers can be followed.
In particular, it is now clear that primitive feathers were widespread among the dinosaurs – as tufty structures which probably helped with insulation. Thus, even the fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex was feathery!
It took some while for feathers to evolve from being downy structures to ones that were capable of enabling flight. Nevertheless, the fossil record beautifully shows how feathers evolved, from the early tufts for insulation to the flight feathers in birds.
Meanwhile, DNA analysis has shown unequivocally that birds have descended from the dinosaurs. In fact, it would be correct to say that birds are dinosaurs – they are the dinosaurs which survived the mass extinction when the Yucatan meteorite struck 65 million years ago, perhaps because they were warm-blooded while their cousins remained cold-blooded.
Thus, in an important sense, the red-necked grebe at Farmoor Reservoir is a dinosaur, and that the other birders who had arrived to photograph it in its breeding plumage were, like me, dinosaur watchers.
Irrespective of its ancestors, the hour at Farmoor Reservoir in the morning was most enjoyable, as the grebe showing itself to be a prodigious fisher. I’d seen the same species there last autumn, so it’s tempting to conclude that it’s the same bird stopping off at the same location on the way back to its breeding territory – although virtually impossible to prove. Despite its ability to catch the fish, it did seem to have some difficulty adjusting them into the head-first position for swallowing – and lost a couple in the process.
Despite the losses, it still managed to catch and swallow a good number – a hearty breakfast!